Film doc­u­men­tary about the ca­reer of long-serv­ing Supreme Court Judge and sup­porter of women's rights

Vocable (All English) - - Culture - ED PILK­ING­TON

At the age of 85, Ruth Bader Gins­burg, one of nine judges on the Supreme Court of the United States, has be­come a ver­i­ta­ble pop cul­ture icon… and a fe­ro­cious op­po­nent of Don­ald Trump. A fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary film of her life and her bat­tle for equal­ity is be­ing re­leased in cin­e­mas this month, of­fer­ing a good op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover more about the history of this im­por­tant Amer­i­can fig­ure who is rel­a­tively un­known in France.

As­mall, frag­ile-look­ing woman with “Super Diva” stamped on her sweat­shirt is stretched out over an ex­er­cise mat in the gym, her face locked in a ric­tus of con­cen­tra­tion as she does 20 push-ups. “She is like a cy­borg,” says her per­sonal trainer. “And when I say cy­borg, she is like a ma­chine.”

2. At 85, hav­ing al­ready sur­vived bouts of col­orec­tal and pan­cre­atic can­cer, Ruth Bader Gins­burg is the prover­bial sur­vivor. And she needs to be. There is a very great deal hang­ing on her con­tin­ued longevity as the fourth lib­eral-lean­ing jus­tice among the nine jus­tices of the US supreme court.


3. As such she pro­vides the last line of de­fense against the forces of dark­ness that are never far be­neath the sur­face in Amer­i­can pub­lic life. Not least the cur­rent in­cum­bent of the White House whom she fa­mously de­nounced be­fore his elec­tion as a “faker” (she later apol­o­gized). Should Gins­burg va­cate her seat while the faker is still in of­fice, she would give Don­ald Trump the golden op­por­tu­nity to lock a con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity into the nation’s top court for at least a gen­er­a­tion.

4. In the new doc­u­men­tary RBG, di­rec­tors Betsy West and Julie Co­hen seek to an­swer the mys­tery of how such a qui­etly spo­ken and re­strained per­son not ex­actly renowned for her ef­fer­ves­cence mor­phed into a hip­ster icon likened to fel­low-Brook­lynite, the late rap­per Big­gie Smalls. “We were taken by this jux­ta­po­si­tion of this very tiny, soft-spo­ken 85-year-old grand­mother be­ing

tough, speak­ing truth to power and, yes, even do­ing planks and push-ups. The whole un­usu­al­ness of that com­bi­na­tion is what makes her a star,” Co­hen told the Guardian.

5. The film-mak­ers spent the best part of three years fol­low­ing Gins­burg around the coun­try as she gave lec­tures and at­tended her beloved opera, as well as con­duct­ing in­ter­views in her cham­bers in the supreme court. It was a daunt­ing prospect at first. “De­spite her small stature, Jus­tice Gins­burg is a very in­tim­i­dat­ing per­son. We ab­so­lutely found it in­tim­i­dat­ing ini­tially – there isn’t a lot of small talk,” West said.


6. The film marks the 25th an­niver­sary of Gins­burg’s nom­i­na­tion to the supreme court on 14 June 1993 and of her con­fir­ma­tion two months later with the as­tound­ing back­ing of 96 sen­a­tors to three – a dis­play of bi­par­ti­san sup­port that seems un­think­able to­day. One as­pect of her ca­reer the co-di­rec­tors were par­tic­u­larly keen to ex­plore, though, was the lesser-known story of her seis­mic work on women’s rights that con­sumed her long be­fore she be­came a mem­ber of the high­est court.

7. “She would have earned a place in history even had she not be­come a supreme court jus­tice,” said West. “She changed the law of the land for Amer­i­can women, mak­ing sure the US con­sti­tu­tion ap­plied to men and women equally – that’s a tremen­dous legacy.” As the doc­u­men­tary re­lates, in the 1970s Gins­burg played a lead­ing role as a le­gal war­rior for women’s rights. She was to gender equal­ity what her pre­de­ces­sor on the supreme court bench, Thur­good Mar­shall, was to race equal­ity in the 1960s.


8. Gins­burg ar­gued six gender equal­ity cases on be­half of the ACLU in front of the supreme court jus­tices – all nine at that time were male, and most of them obliv­i­ous to the vis­ceral dis­crim­i­na­tion en­dured at that time by women in the work­place. De­spite those pre­vail­ing prej­u­dices, she turned them round and won five cases out of the six.

9. She did so for­ever with the same poise and style – po­litely, re­spect­fully, but al­ways force­fully – that has be­come her trade­mark. Gins­burg says in the film that she in­her­ited her com­po­sure from her mother. “‘Never in anger,’ my mother told me. That would have been self­de­feat­ing. I did see my­self as a kind of kinder­garten teacher in those days, be­cause the judges didn’t think sex dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­isted.” 10. For RBG, the is­sue of ram­pant sex­ism was not just a le­gal chal­lenge, it was per­sonal. She be­gan to train in the law in the 1950s when the pro­fes­sion was con­sid­ered by most (male) prac­ti­tion­ers to be un­suit­able for women. She was one of nine women in a class of more than 500 men at Har­vard law school, where she was re­fused en­try by the La­mont Li­brary be­cause of her gender. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Columbia Univer­sity in 1959, not a sin­gle New York law firm would em­ploy her. She was turned away by part­ner­ships that to­day she em­ploys to do re­search for her as a US supreme court jus­tice.

11. Though they be­gan film­ing RBG be­fore the ex­plo­sion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up move­ment, the film-mak­ers see their work as form­ing part of a wave of recog­ni­tion of the ex­tra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tions made by ex­cep­tional women. “There’s a long history in this coun­try of women’s sto­ries be­ing un­der­told, but now there’s un­der­stand­ing that we’ve only been pay­ing se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to half of the pop­u­la­tion,” Co­hen said.

(L'Ate­lier Dis­tri­bu­tion)

Ruth Bader Gins­burg was nom­i­nated as an As­so­ciate Jus­tice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.


The mem­bers of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., June 2017.

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